John Cassavetes’ Faces: The Authenticity of Discomfort

There is something deeply discomfiting about the work of John Cassavetes. These are the kinds of films during which you spend the first ten minutes or so nervously looking around at the other audience members surrounding you to gauge their reactions. Are they into this? Do they get it? For that matter, do I get it? Are people leaving? Sighing audibly? Grinning and bearing it?

The camera always gets too close in these films. These aren’t close-ups; they are invasions of private space. The lighting is either too harsh or too obscure, too clinical or too obfuscating. Even when we find ourselves fascinated by these films (and sooner or later, if we are truly watching them, we will find ourselves fascinated), we cannot suppress a troubling desire to flee from them, to escape their unseemly lack of manners. These films are almost too oppressive; they insinuate themselves into areas of our thoughts and our lives that we would just as soon remained inviolate.

Perhaps this accounts for the much-vaunted sense of authenticity in Cassavetes’s films. When we are beguiled by a film, when we are drawn in by the bewitching splendor of its technique, we leave ourselves behind. We are caught up in the moment of the film’s unfolding. But in forgetting ourselves, we recognize (if only tacitly or in retrospect) the fictive nature of the experience. The very fact that we were able to become absorbed in something else clarifies the fact that this something else has rather little to do with us. It is something apart from our experience.

We experience the film, of course, but only in a sort of removed, artificial manner. Cassavetes doesn’t allow for such escapist fantasies. We find elements of these films terribly repellent and when we are repelled we are reminded of our existence, our presence. The desire to flee necessarily entails an awareness of our bodily capacity for doing so. Nothing is more authentic than discomfiture.

This is not to say that we confuse Cassavetes’s films with reality; only fools and overly sycophantic film critics would allow themselves to think such a thing. We know that these are actors and the low-budget feel of the entire affair continually reminds one that this is artifice. It is our urge to recoil, our resistance to accept such crude behavior as entertainment that lends these films their authenticity. They themselves are not authentic but our responses to them most certainly are.

Now, any film can be repellent but it takes serious craft to produce a film that is repellent in precisely the way one finds Faces repellent. The new release of a beautifully restored edition of the film from the Criterion Collection (this print was previously available only as part of a boxed set of five of Cassavetes’s films) makes the disturbing grandeur of Faces available to be simultaneously embraced and shunned in a manner that few, if any, other films could inspire.

Faces examines the marital relationship between Richard Forst (John Marley) and his wife Maria (Lynn Carlin) at a moment that might resemble any other moment in a relationship except that they suddenly decide to drop the pretense. Indeed, Faces, if one were to claim it had any concrete theme, might be said to be an exploration of the impossibility of dropping social pretense and the price one inevitably pays when one attempts to do so.

We should be wary of thinking of their efforts to escape their roles as acts of individual heroism. The characters seek to eschew the limits imposed by their social masks but they are unable to live free of any pretense whatsoever. Their attempts at unmasking amount to little more than an exchange of one mask for another.

This is made clear in one of the earliest scenes in which we find Richard Forst and his best friend, colleague and old college chum Freddy (Fred Draper) drunkenly cavorting with the prostitute, Jeannie (Gena Rowlands). The two friends continually vie for Jeannie’s attention and affection. They perform old skits for her, make bibulous speeches, argue empty philosophies of friendship and life, sing various renditions of “(I Dream of) Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair”, and constantly cut in on each other to be her dance partner. For whatever reason, Jeannie appears to prefer Richard despite Freddy’s increasingly frantic attempts to ingratiate himself to her. Eventually, Freddy finds himself standing to the side of the room. He looks toward the dancing couple and asks Jeannie how much she charges.

Now, on the one hand, this might seem to be a perfectly reasonable thing to ask a prostitute. Indeed, Freddy feigns shock when he acknowledges that his matter-of-fact behavior might have hurt Jeannie’s sensibilities. After all, he wasn’t necessarily behaving in a boorish manner. He was simply (and justifiably) assessing the costs of what was surely meant to be a financial transaction. But by calling attention to the fact that he was a businessman engaging in a business transaction (which is precisely what was happening when viewed from the business perspective in which the event transpired), Freddy punctured the insouciant atmosphere that all three participants (Freddy included) had worked so hard to create. He called attention to what was actually taking place.

This was no magical moment in which the laws of society were somehow set aside. Even if they were breaking the law of the land by engaging in prostitution, their infraction was to be conducted along the lines established by capitalist society: a service requires compensation. Yet the mere act of calling attention to the facts of the matter was in itself a breach of an unspoken contract in which the participants understood that this financial transaction was to take place as though nothing could be further removed from the world of business. Theirs was a business contract designed to disavow the notion of business.

However, by refusing to play along any longer, Freddy did not so much unmask the situation as he adopted another (equally familiar) mask: that of the businessman. When he seemingly lost Jeannie’s favor in his role of antic drunk, he attempted to regain control of the situation by playing the pragmatic man of finance. It wasn’t a terrible strategy even if it was rather pathetic. After all, his gesture simultaneously demonstrated that he considered Jeannie’s affections to be saleable and therefore of little consequence. Furthermore, he suggested that Richard’s success with her amounted to a rather paltry accomplishment inasmuch as success with her was virtually guaranteed. Of course, he failed to win the control he desired and left Jeannie’s home utterly deflated.

This is one of the most moving scenes of the picture, although it might at first be rather difficult to figure out why it is so effective. After all of the braggadocio, the anarchic flailing about, the out-of-tune raucous singing, the endless repetitions of gags, we are just about finished with all three of these characters. Our instinct is to get away from them. They are the definition of bad company — self-centered, crude, pretentious, and sadly ludicrous. They work so hard to entertain each other that we can hardly help but feel left out altogether. They are just so insular.

And then Freddy finds himself unceremoniously ejected from the fold and he looks for a way to reenter it. He looks for a way to master it. Richard and Jeannie treat him as though he were totally bereft of the finer sensibilities. He is treated like the buffoon that belched at a banquet. And we cannot help but sense that we are meant to view him that way, that Cassavetes’s sympathies are with Jeannie (if not also with Richard) and that her home is meant to truly be a haven away from business and the garish elements of the outside world.

But the sad thing is that Freddy is right. The garish elements of the outside world are right there on display in that gaudy apartment and in the face of the prostitute with the ridiculously long false eyelashes and her attempts to play the perfect hostess when we know (we viewers along with Freddy and Richard), at the end of the evening, her hand will be out, waiting for payment. Freddy is right to feel short-changed because he wanted to buy into that fantasy and for no apparent reason he was being denied access to it.

Despite Cassavetes’s attempts to make Jeannie’s apartment a world apart, we realize that this is no oasis. It is not simply her home; it is a place of business. But it is a place of business that has to pretend it is something else and all of the lonely patrons that enter that realm have to be complicit in their own enchantment. By any external standard, Freddy did not behave boorishly. There is nothing boorish about inquiring after the purchase price at the point of sale—except when what you are purchasing is the illusion that you are not purchasing anything at all.

The reason I find this scene so hauntingly beautiful is that Freddy is absolutely correct while being totally out of place. He attempts to win a struggle by moving beyond the boundaries of the game but finds that, instead, he has merely brought the entire play to a halt. In a sense, he has broached pretense and given voice to the truth. Ultimately, however, he has accomplished no such thing. He merely replaced his veneer of the sociable drunk with the veneer of the hard-nosed businessman. Neither reveals anything about Freddy because there is nothing there to reveal—just as there is nothing to reveal with any of the other characters.

Cassavetes originally entitled his screenplay for this film Dinosaurs, in part because he believed that businessmen like Richard Forst were on the edge of extinction. His actual film, however, demonstrates the opposite. It demonstrates that Forst and his kind are not limited to businessmen and their wives. What is Jeannie if not a businesswoman?

I realize that Cassavetes wants Jeannie and Chet (Seymour Cassel) to represent outsiders in relation to the bourgeois embalmment enacted by Richard and Maria, but neither of these outsiders can keep themselves from being absorbed into the very mindset that the Forsts represent. Jeannie offers a temporary escape but as Richard discovers in the morning after their tryst, she is all artifice; she is selling a product built on illusion just as he does in his job as the chairman of the board in a film company.

Chet appears to be the very definition of the outsider but he too has no access to an unaffected sense of authenticity. He is, as he himself proclaims in one of the finest monologues in the movie, a mechanical man. He goes through the motions. While he assures one of the desperate housewives during a late night gathering that he has no desire to take the place of their husbands in the financial world, he utterly depends upon the regime that those husbands have established. Were there no wealthy businessmen, there would be no wealthy businessmen’s wives to seduce. What Faces truly accomplishes is not to show us that this system is on the verge of collapse, but rather that it is endlessly adaptable and capable of absorbing elements that would seem to contradict it.

The authenticity of Cassavetes’s vision here comes from our unwillingness to accept the fateful nature of what he presents. I realize that this is not the accepted understanding of what Cassavetes was hoping to accomplish. Cassavetes, as the “father” of American Independent Film, was supposed to be speaking truth to power, to be making a plea for the real in a world of pretense. This take on Cassavetes’s career is evident in many of the extras that Criterion Collection has lavished upon this DVD.

In the series of interviews with Al Ruban (producer, editor, cameraman), Seymour Cassel, Gena Rowlands, and Lynn Carlin, entitled “Making Faces”, all of the talking heads emphasize the freedom of Cassavetes’s approach, his willingness to give the actors space, his insistence upon honesty in acting while at the same time insisting that he carefully scripted the entire film. It is not so much that there seems to be a contradiction inherent in this narrative as it is that the interviewees always skirt the issue of Cassavetes’s directorial control. And control, a piercing and unforgiving sense of control is what comes across on every frame of the film.

This notion is reinforced by the remarkable interviews with Cassavetes that come from a French television series Cinéastes de notre temps from 1968. Cassavetes appears here in full manic mode. He is the charismatic salesman, the peddler of the dream that you were doing something real, something beyond the bounds of what was possible. The amazing thing here is that he quite nearly managed to create that dream. There is something that happens in a Cassavetes film that happens nowhere else. It is not merely the lack of production values. You can find that in plenty of films both before and after Cassavetes.

It is also not a sense of reality. These films are no more real than any others. But there is something here, a quality that keeps one coming back to these films, a sense that here something was happening, here the artifice mattered. The importance of the artifice is buttressed by the presence of an alternative opening of the film, also presented as an extra.

I only wish that they could have provided viewers with the entire original version of Faces inasmuch as the first 18 minutes of that version are mesmerizing and offer us a little more time to grapple with these characters. If at all possible, devotees of Cassavetes really ought to have access to the original (three-hour) version of the film mentioned in the interviews with Cassavetes from the French interviews.

However, if anything were to make this film irreplaceable, as I believe it to be, it would be the final sequence. Richard and Maria confront each other after a night of infidelity. There are accusations, recriminations. But in the end, they sit on the stairs, the passageway bathed in the soft glow of the sunrise (one of the very few moments of natural light in a film obsessed with the garish effects of artificial lighting).

They smoke. They stare at each other. They pass each other in the stairway, moving back and forth between their position reclining on the stairs and the bedroom. They fail to address whatever is on their mind. They have both confessed that they are no longer in love but then routine sets in. They begin to prepare themselves for the day ahead. Thus life continues. Thus they begin again.